By Margaret Hermes
ART TIMES Spring 2016
It’s not your fault. I know you won’t believe that even if you remind yourself a thousand times a day that you did everything you could. You’ll start out blaming yourself for your tone of voice the last time I called.
You’ll drift back to junior high when I threw up every day the first week you had me transferred to the other school. You’ll remember that Sunday afternoon you slapped me when I was four years old and lifted your dress when the minister stopped by to admire your rose bushes. That was one of the earliest opportunities I spoiled for you. Though maybe I should get credit for my father’s departure the year before.
I never liked that preacher and his talk of redemption. I wonder if I understood even then that for one split second, a splintering second followed by endless remorse, that his opinion mattered to you more than I did.
But everyone fails everyone else from time to time. That is the all too human condition. Peter denied Christ not once but three times. And he’d been forewarned. We are weak things. Some of us more than others. Or so the reverend said.
But you were always telling me not to give up. Not to give in.
You saw your words as encouragement. It was my particular form of weakness that I took encouragement as criticism. Words cut me, not to the bone but to the marrow. Maybe that’s why I would cut into my flesh. It was so much less painful, it felt like pleasure.
It’s not your fault that I couldn’t see what you wanted for me, only what you wanted from me that I would never be able to give. I know you didn’t want those things for yourself – the playmates, the good grades, the girlfriend, the happiness. Even if I didn’t always know that, I know it now.
So give yourself a break.
Try to think of this as a release for both of us. No more searching for an answer. No more trying to find just the right combination of therapy and meds, of talk and swallow.
No more waiting for the call you’ve been dreading all these long years. For this other shoe to drop.
But here’s the thing: none of that matters. None of it. Not how you felt when I was four or how you’ll feel the moment you find out or how you’ll feel tomorrow and all the days after. None of it matters. Because I can’t abide any of it any more. I cannot abide here any more.
You can’t release me. You never could. You would never let go. So it’s up to me to free us both.
The only way that works is for you to accept that whatever anguish you will endure, it is less than mine. Mine is unendurable.
Or as Porky Pig put it so elegantly, so economically, so mercifully, “Th-th-th-that’s all, folks.”
(Margaret Hermes’s collection of short fiction, Relative Strangers (Carolina Wren Press), won the Doris Bakwin Book Award and was given a special second place award in the Balcones Fiction Prize competition. One of the stories in that collection first appeared in Art Times. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri.)